Why is it so difficult to learn from failure?

By Steve Macaulay

broken blue plateFailure happens. For a myriad different reasons, things go wrong. And at an organisational level, the consequences will range from embarrassing to catastrophic. It is, simply, unrealistic to expect things never to go wrong.

That said, it is surely much more realistic to expect things to not go wrong twice.

And indeed, it’s that expectation of avoiding a repeat failure that underpins much organisational response to failure. Enquiries are held. Review boards meet. And chief executives speak earnestly of lessons learned, and a firm resolve to put revised approaches put in place.

For a while, the mood is upbeat. Until failure re-occurs.

Why don’t we learn?

In part, it’s because failure itself is a slippery notion.

Some failure is obviously ‘bad’, and avoidable. Operational mistakes against clearly defined processes, for instance, fall into this category. There were processes to be followed—and they weren’t. Failure ensued.

Some failure is just as unwanted, but more difficult to avoid. Strategic failures would be an example here. A high-level strategy was defined, and executed. But failure ensued. The problem wasn’t the execution, but the strategy itself. It was, simply, wrong.

And perversely, some failure is to be welcomed. Experimental failure, for instance, can provide valuable data, and an opportunity to try another avenue. Entrepreneurs are often urged to ‘fail fast’, cut their losses, and move on to something else.

In each case, there are lessons to be learned—lessons from failure, if you will. But equally, in each case the process of acquiring those lessons from failure will be different, as will the inherent value of those lessons. Clearly, for instance, a lesson from failure successfully learned regarding—say—strategic failure can be expected to be more valuable than a lesson learned regarding experimental failure.

The wrong mindset

Yet often, organisations—and the managers within them—can be blind to the value embedded in lessons from failure.

It is a common reaction for both organisations and individuals to deny, justify, or be embarrassed by mistakes. And in almost every organisation there is a marked reluctance amongst many executives and employees to acknowledge their failures and to admit mistakes. Instead, they keep quiet about their failures, and hope no one will notice.

Collectively, this can contribute to an organisational culture where it becomes the norm in how people behave. Mistakes are brushed under the carpet—and with them, the value offered by lessons from failure.

Yet in some organisations, that doesn’t happen, or—at the very least—happens less. In those organisations—think safety-critical organisations such as NASA, and airlines, and the oil industry—there is an understanding that the value to be gained from lessons from failure outweighs any embarrassment or censure.

How can the Learning and Development function help the organisation learn lessons from failure?

Learning and development professionals—and those in human resources leadership roles generally—can play a valuable role in helping to build an organisational culture that maximises the opportunity to learn lessons from failure.

This is no easy matter, especially in hierarchical and blame-centric organisations, but a positive approach—and determination to learn lessons from failure—is likely to contribute to strengthen the foundations of the organisation.

At an organisational level, the learning and development function can help to processes that ask:

  • What happened, and why?
  • What is the root‑cause of the failure?
  • Could we have done anything to prevent this failure? If so, what?
  • Is there a discernible pattern?
  • What, if anything, could we have done differently which has implications for future actions?
  • What information and support do we need to do this?

How can the Learning and Development function help individuals to learn lessons from failure?

Individuals, too, should be encouraged to learn lessons from failure. Instead of sweeping failure under the carpet, or pretending that there aren’t lessons to be learned from it, they need to be more open to failure and its lessons.

And apart from anything else, a more positive approach to failure will help to avoid the ‘mood swings’ and ‘ups and downs’ that often result from having failed—and which impede performance.

In short, learning and development professionals can help individuals to identify strategies which strengthen their ability to cope with—and learn from—failure. Typical advice, for instance, might be to:

  • Separate the issue from the personal
  • Distinguish a failure from one's identity
  • Avoid dwelling too much on the failure
  • Experiment with new ways to avoid repeating patterns of failure

Lessons from failure: the bottom line

No one likes failing. Or failure. But some level of failure is inevitable—and the challenge for both individuals and organisations is to rise about that experience of failure, and learn from it.

Those lessons might not be easy, or comfortable. But they will be valuable.

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